In this post, part 2 "b" in our search engine series, we will discuss how the content and structure of your page might influence how your site is viewed by search engines. In part 1 we talked about having useful and valuable content. That lesson is the foundation on which all other legitimate techniques must be based. If your content is not useful you are part of the problem we are trying to solve. In Part 2 "a" we talked about stuff that goes into the header. Now it's time to talk about things that go into the actual page.
One of the things you may not think about is the sheer number of characters that are a part of the page. Some research indicates that search engines simply stop indexing your page after a few kilobytes. I suppose that's one reason why the title is so important. It also means that one of the other things you should think about is how you style your page. If you are accustomed to using lots of nested tables and in-line styles you might consider using CSS instead.
There are a host of resources out there for CSS. You can almost always accomplish the same thing with CSS as you can with tables. It just requires a different, more abstract mindset. For me, tables always provided a visual "grid" in my head. This grid was a conceptual tool that my pea brain could take hold of and use to layout content. With CSS it's much more left-brained (not my forte). Still, using CSS can make your page more semantic and more readable. Consider this example:
Furthermore, the HTML code is not "semantic". It is pure layout. HTML you might recall is intended to be markup. The tags are supposed to say more than just "put this here and make it yea big". They are supposed to say something about the content. An "H1" tag is supposed to indicate content that is more important than "H2", not just bigger. List items are supposed to contain lists. Tags like "Strong" (for boldface) and "Em" (for italic) are supposed to mean "emphasis this" or "give this more weight". In the case of the example above the items in question are really list items. With a combination of CSS classes you could get exactly this effect, indicate it is a list and reduce the clutter in the HTML.
Now before I get letters about how the semantic web is a perpetual lady-in-waiting, I'm well aware that the concept doesn't quite live up to it's promise. Practically speaking, 90% of the HTML found on the web is useless from this point of view. That doesn't mean we shouldn't adopt it. It makes your HTML code more readable and maintainable. Such content can be more easily consumed by text readers, PDAs, RSS generators and the like. CSS will give you a leaner page weight (total size of the page) and make it load faster and cleaner.
Do search engines index flash content? You can find hundreds of blogs and articles on the web that bolster one side or the other. You can also find many approaches to creating flash content that is easier to consume using by SDKs and tools. In fact, in your searching for all these blogs and articles there is one thing you will not find. You won't stumble onto any content that comes from a Flash movie. In fact, in my experience as someone who spends a good part of each week scouring the web for content on various topics of interest, I have never yet stumbled onto anything I was searching for that was obviously pulled from a flash movie. I'm not saying it has never happened - I'm just saying that the vast vast majority of indexed content on the web is text from HTML or other markup - not Flash.
As an experiment I did a search for shark filetype:swf. My searched returned links to no less than 14,200 flash objects including this one from the shark research institute. If you go to the home page of the shark research institute you will indeed see this movie embedded as the home page. Does this mean that Google indexed the content of the swf file? Yes indeed. The swf file has been indexed and as long as I search by filetype it shows up. But if I just search for "shark" without the filetype I get 36 million results - and nothing on the first 20 pages is from a flash file.
Let me say one final note on Flash, Flex and Ajax. There are certainly cases where content embedded in these technologies should be indexed. In particular, I have seen content embedded in flash movies that rightly belongs in HTML. But the purpose of these technologies is not always to create pretty web sites that are candidates for indexing. Often, Ajax and Flex are used to create interactivity - applications and user interfaces. Such things are not always appropriate for indexing anyway - so the use of these technologies need not be seen as a negative.
There's no magic to effective writing - but some things that work in the human world will become obstacles in the world of search engines. Here are a couple of tips on writing valuable content.
Hopefully you've gained a few tips from this post about how to style better and write better content. In our next post we will talk about creating strategies for better page ranking.